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Thursday, March 25, 2010

I-Team Examines Increase In Deportation Of Military Veterans

Veterans Say They Served Honorably But Were Deported For Criminal Convictions
By Lauren Reynolds
10News I-Team Reporter
March 23, 2010

SAN DIEGO -- Limping along a dirt road and using a cane for support, a man in his late 30s walked toward a small building in an impoverished Rosarito Beach neighborhood. Jose walked up one flight of stairs, opened a door and said, "I don't have no furniture, nothing; this is just the basics."

Jose moved into a small one-bedroom apartment about two months ago after being deported from the U.S.

"There's no hot water, I have to warm it up here to take hot showers," he explained.

It's a culture shock for him because he was not only raised in the U.S., he fought to protect it.

"I put my life on the line to jump out of planes," he said, pointing to a picture taped to the wall of soldiers jumping out of a military aircraft.

Also on his wall hang his uniform, honorable discharge and medals of commendation for serving as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne.

A green card holder, Jose got married in the U.S., had a child and then made a serious mistake -- he committed a felony.

"I ended up picking up a gun charge two months after I got out of the military … did about 3 years (in prison)," he said.

Prison was just the first punishment. The day Jose was released, he was picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, put through the deportation process and was eventually bused across the U.S.-Mexico border.

"It's hard not seeing your loved ones," Jose explained, looking at a picture of his child and wife who are still living in the U.S.

Jose is not alone, as the 10News I-Team met two other U.S. military veterans who were also deported to Mexico where they've struggled to adjust. They said they've had difficulty finding work. The only offers have come from drug traffickers looking for former military personnel with certain skill sets.

"What weapons knowledge that I have, what combat military tactics do I have," explained Hector, who served in Vietnam. He said he has been approached twice, but declined.

"Because there is no way I will go against the American people," he said.

Heather Boxeth is a San Diego criminal and immigration attorney who is representing deported veterans, and she told the I-Team, "They consider themselves American. They don't have a certificate of nationalization, but they fought for this country."

She said weapons and drug charges are the fastest way to wind up deported.

Numerous drug charges led to Hector's deportation, and he said, "It's not right, because we put our lives on the line for the United States."

It was also a string of drug charges that led Luis, an Army cook, to be kicked out of the U.S.

Luis said the punishment is too harsh, stating, "I'm not a terrorist, I'm not a traitor, I didn't betray my country."

Boxeth believes that often the crimes that land the veterans in trouble stem from their military service.

"Having a lot of different psychological, medical, health issues," she said.

As more foreign nationals are entering the U.S. Armed Forces -- about 8,000 a year -- the number of deportations of veterans is rising.

Numbers the I-Team obtained from the Department of Homeland Security show that in 2007, 16 veterans were deported. That number nearly doubled to 29 the next year, and in 2009, the number had jumped to 57 deported veterans.

"If they had gotten their citizenship, they wouldn't be in this situation," explained Rob Baker, who oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego and explains that military personnel can become citizens in three years.

"Veterans are on the fast track," he said.

If veterans do not pursue citizenship, they are vulnerable for deportation just like any green card holder who commits a serious crime. Even some misdemeanors can lead to deportation.

Baker does review every case involving ex-military personnel and he has discretion to keep those veterans out of the deportation process.

Reporter Lauren Reynolds asked Baker, "So you could stop it if you wanted to?"

He replied, "Yes", but he hasn't stopped deportation for the 25 or so cases he's reviewed so far.

Asked why he hasn't intervened, Baker said, "As a 23 year veteran of the Air Force and Air Force Reserves, I really admire the fact that they served our country. However, these crimes they are committing are very serious crimes."

He pointed out that the veterans were not immune from the criminal prosecutions that put them behind bars, just as they're not immune from the laws that apply to all legal immigrants.

Last year, a group called "Banished Veterans" was formed to lobby for reform of the laws related to veterans and deportations. Boxeth is a member of that group and said the goal to put all foreign born military personnel into a status of "non-citizen national." That way they'd still have to earn their citizenship, but they would be immune from deportation even if they commit a crime. The group is lobbying Congress right now.

Jose knows his crime was serious but said, "I made my mistakes, and I paid my debt to society."
He regrets that he didn't follow through on the citizenship process. He never realized how much that could cost him.

He's living on donations from his family and his church as he waits and prays for a miracle or law change that will allow him back in to the country he served.

"My allegiance is still to the United States," he said.